CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – The U.S. government has dropped a murder charge against a Marine who pleaded guilty Tuesday to dereliction of duty for killing an unarmed Iraqi detainee during a battle to recapture the city of Fallujah.
If convicted of murder, Sgt. Jermaine Nelson could have faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Instead, he now faces a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a dishonorable discharge under the plea agreement.
Defense attorney Joseph Low told reporters the agreement says Nelson will not serve any prison time and will be honorably discharged.
"It's over," Low said during a recess.
Military officials wouldn't immediately confirm the terms of the plea deal.
The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, does not know the sentence spelled out in the plea bargain. He could order a stiffer penalty, but the ultimate punishment will be the less severe of the two sentences.
Nelson admitted that he wrongly killed the unarmed detainee, one of four Iraqi men who surrendered when his squad entered a home in November 2004. He said he fired anyway on orders from his squad leader, former Sgt. Jose Luis Nazario.
"I knew it was wrong, I knew it was unlawful," Nelson told the judge. "I didn't want to go against what Sgt. Nazario told me to do."
Nelson, 28, said he was taught "in class after class after class" to move the unarmed detainee to a safe place. He also accepted blame for the other three men who, according to the government, were killed by other squad members.
"That was part of my job, to ensure the safety of all the detainees," Nelson said.
Nelson is the only remaining defendant in a case that has resulted in two defeats for the government. Nelson's squadmate, Sgt. Ryan Weemer, was acquitted by a military jury of the same charges in April. That jury consisted of eight Marines, all of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Nazario, Nelson's squad leader, was acquitted last year in federal court in Riverside, California, on counts that included voluntary manslaughter. Nazario was beyond the reach of a court-martial because he had completed his military obligations.
During Weemer's one-week court-martial at Camp Pendleton, the defense argued that the government could not prove Weemer was guilty of murder because there were no bodies, no relatives complaining of a lost loved one and no forensic evidence.
The case came to light long after the battle.
In 2006, after he left the Marine Corps, Weemer applied for a job in the Secret Service. During a background interview before a polygraph test as part of the application, he was asked about the most serious crime he ever committed.
"We went into this house, there happened to be four or five guys in the house," Weemer said in a recording of the interview played during his trial. "We ended up shooting them, we had to."
Weemer's account triggered an investigation that led to the charges.
Nelson's squad was from Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, the same company that a year later was involved in the widely publicized killings of 24 men, women and children in Haditha, Iraq. None of the Marines from the Fallujah case were involved in the Haditha case.
Eight Marines were charged in the Haditha killings, the biggest criminal case against U.S. troops to come out of the Iraq war. Charges were dismissed against six defendants and a seventh was acquitted. The sole remaining defendant is the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, whose court-martial is not scheduled.